Eileen Claussen: “The first thing the CCSP needs is strong and independent leadership”

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Speaking at a National Academy of Sciences workshop on Future Priorities for the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, Eileen Claussen, President of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, laid down this challenge: “If this program cannot produce a comprehensive and integrated national assessment on the climate issue, who can? You cannot communicate effectively until you have something to communicate, until you can produce an up to date, integrated national assessment. And you cannot do that until you have independent leadership that is not subject to either bureaucratic or political interference.”

The National Academy of Sciences / National Research Council (NAS/NRC) Committee on Strategic Advice on the U.S. Climate Change Science Program is a significant vehicle for raising and bringing to high-level attention a wide range of problems with the climate program

The Committee’s first report Evaluating Progress of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program: Methods and Preliminary Results, issued in September 2007, identified key problems with the current CCSP. The report does well what it does, though it does not succeed in identifying the real locus of what is driving the problems—which lies primarily up the political food chain from the science program managers who coordinate the CCSP. We will have more to say about this report and its implications in the near future, and will call for congressional investigation and oversight to follow up on the report’s conclusions.

See also the Academy’s news release on the report: “U.S. Climate Change Science Program Making Good Progress In Documenting And Understanding Changes, But Study Of Impacts On Humans And Communication With Decision Makers Lag.”

As part of laying the groundwork for its next report, the NRC Committee held a Workshop on Future Priorities for the U.S. Climate Change Science Program on October 15-17 in Washington, DC.  Among other interesting and valuable proceedings at the workshop, we appreciated the address, at the morning plenary session on October 15, by Eileen Claussen, President of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. (The Pew Center is a leading voice for pragmatic action to address the climate change problem.)

In speaking on “Evolving the CCSP to Help End Users,” Claussen offered more straight talk about the dysfunctional CCSP-policy interface than we usually hear at Academy committee meetings about the program, and certainly more than the CCSP “leadership” would voice in public. Ralph Cicerone, president of the Academy, was a high-profile and most attentive listener, along with the NRC’s CCSP advisory committee and a roomful of workshop participants. In the talk, we heard support for some of the key ideas that we have been emphasizing for the past few years. Claussen started with this:

I was invited here today to talk about communications. And on the heels of the IPCC and Al Gore jointly being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize– I’d say your timing is perfect.  The Nobel committee confirmed in no uncertain terms what you and I already knew:  sound science and the ability to communicate it, is crucial – and I would further say that it is not an easy thing to do – hence the award. 
Those of us working on the climate issue face this challenge every day: how to communicate credible science in a politically charged environment, because while the science of climate change is, in and of itself, not political – the solutions that we need to put in place to avert the worst consequences, most assuredly are.
So the CCSP is, or should be, right in the thick of it.  Your guiding vision is to create “a nation and the global community empowered with the science-based knowledge to manage the risks and opportunities of change in the climate and related environmental systems.” 
This is a solid mandate -­ a nation and the global community empowered.  It really says it all: we need science that informs what we do to respond to this enormous challenge, and empowers us to act.  But while the vision of the Climate Change Science Program is sound, this program unfortunately has not been endowed with the capacity to make that happen.  The CCSP has not been at the forefront of efforts to inform and drive our response to climate change.

Viewing with a jaundiced eye the political and management structure that sits atop the CCSP under the current administration—a power structure that goes up to the president through the Commerce Department and has no formal basis in either statute or Executive Order—Claussen concluded:

No organization could realistically be expected to overcome the institutional barriers that appear to have been deliberately erected to inhibit the effectiveness of this program.
Why would these barriers exist?  Because there remain a significant number of people—and might I say a number of people that are significant—who do not have any real interest in science-based knowledge, no matter how credible, or how compellingly presented.  Yes, they acknowledge there’s a climate problem.  But they have their preconceived notions of what they think is appropriate climate change policy, and they only want to hear what will support their policy conclusions.  And so, they make a lot of noise about creating this program to advance climate science but they don’t give it the wherewithal to be effective.

We have been calling attention to the role of the global warming disinformation campaign and how its tactics have shifted from denying human-induced global warming to manipulating public discourse about climate change impacts and response strategies. Claussen noted concisely:

On the issue of climate change, we have lost years, decades even, in our still-nascent effort to mount a serious response.  And the reason we have lost all these years is because we have allowed people to get away with ignoring or questioning or obfuscating the science around this issue – when the basic questions were largely settled some time ago. 
And so the question we face today is how to make sure this does not continue. We need to make sure we rely on science for guidance as we work to find the solutions.  We need to make sure that the same forces that have kept us from acting on the climate issue by questioning good science do not now succeed in using the same tactics to water down our response.

We have repeatedly noted the hollowing out and weakening of the CCSP leadership under this administration. Claussen said:

The first thing CCSP needs in order to be more effective is…stronger leadership—strong and independent brass at the helm of the program. The CCSP also needs a national presence and stature. It needs to develop a unified strategy for addressing gaps in the science, for producing science that guides and informs public policy, and for coordinating and guiding the work of the participating agencies so that we move from the current scattershot approach to meeting a clear and focused agenda.  And that will happen only with strong and independent leadership of the program.

We have focused since day one on the administration’s scandalous suppression of official use of the National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts, the abandonment of what should have been an ongoing national climate change assessment process. Taking one more helpful step in bringing the national assessment concept back from its near-death experience at the hands of the current administration and a CCSP “leadership” that failed to push back in the face of this political and intellectual scandal, Claussen said:

The CCSP’s decision to produce 21 separate reports is a symptom of the larger problems I have talked about.  Everything is fragmented – so we never get a clear picture. If you are a state or local decision maker, or just an ordinary citizen, living in a particular region of the United States, one integrated report that talked about the impacts of climate change in that region – what can be expected, and over what time frames, and what will be required to deal with those impacts – would be invaluable.  If you are a national decision-maker, understanding the breadth and seriousness of the impacts across the nation should provide you with the information you need to supply to the Congress as they work on serious legislation that will substantially reduce our emissions, and also as they make sure that the resources are available to deal with the impacts that we know are likely no matter how aggressive our mitigation efforts are….   
If this program cannot produce a comprehensive and integrated national assessment on the climate issue, who can?…

You cannot communicate effectively until you have something to communicate, until you can produce an up to date, integrated national assessment targeted at preserving and adapting human and natural systems in the face of both natural climate variability and human induced climate change.  And you cannot do that until you have independent leadership that is not subject to either bureaucratic or political interference.

Claussen concluded by suggesting that success—in shaking up the Climate Change Science Program with major reforms and giving it a new direction under strong leadership with national presence—is an essential component of the nation’s response to dealing with climate change:

The fate of the Climate Change Science Program will tell us a great deal about whether America is up to this challenge.  We need to reform this program: there is no doubt about it. And we know how to make it stronger. The question is: will we do what’s needed?

We’re trying. 

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